Lawmaker pledges to close loophole that allows drinking in ocean

A Hawaii state lawmaker is promising action after a Fourth of July "floatilla" off Waikiki resulted in the hospitalization of 10 people for intoxication and injuries related to alcohol.

According to Emergency Medical Services, that included a 19-year-old woman who was hospitalized in critical condition due to intoxication.

Rep. Kaniela Ing, chair of the House Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs, says it's time for the legislature to step in.

"We shouldn't have to wait for someone to actually die before we take action," Ing said at a press conference Wednesday. "Once you step into the water, it's technically legal for you to drink alcohol. ... Why is it not okay to drink on the beach, but it is okay to drink as soon as you step into the water? That makes no practical sense and it's endangering the lives now of many young people."

According to Hawaii Revised Statutes:

§281-101.5 Prohibitions involving minors; penalty.

(b) No minor shall consume or purchase liquor and no minor shall consume or have liquor in the minor's possession or custody in any public place, public gathering, or public amusement, at any public beach or public park, or in any motor vehicle on a public highway; provided that notwithstanding any other law to the contrary, this subsection shall not apply to:

  1. Possession or custody of liquor by a minor in the course of delivery, pursuant to the direction of the minor's employer lawfully engaged in business necessitating the delivery;
  2. Possession, custody, or consumption of liquor by a minor in connection with the minor's authorized participation in religious ceremonies requiring such possession, custody, or consumption; or
  3. Any person between the ages of eighteen and twenty, who is participating in a controlled purchase as part of a law enforcement activity or a study authorized by the department of health to determine the level of incidence of liquor sales to minors.

Ing says he plans to discuss the issue with House and Senate leadership, and introduce a bill that would close this legal loophole and make it illegal for all swimmers to be drinking in the water.

If the law had been in place, Ing says law enforcement officers could have cited revelers at the floatilla.

"We're not trying to impede on anyone's fun. I'm a young guy. I'm all for having fun responsibly, but this has crossed a line repeatedly where (it's) actually littering our beaches and endangering people's lives," Ing said.

Ing says it's possible the issue could be addressed during an upcoming special session, during which lawmakers hope to agree on a plan to fund Honolulu's rail project.

Meanwhile, the Honolulu Police Department says it is investigating six people for underage drinking from Tuesday's incidents.

"It's difficult for us (to enforce). We need to observe the violation. In this case, it was the end result where the juveniles were already intoxicated," said Lt. Eric Yosemori.

"And if they're out in the water, you can't do anything?" KHON2 asked.

"Yeah, that's not our area," Yosemori said.

Lifeguards estimate as many as 10,000 people spent the day in motorized boats and blow-up water toys.

The city Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division says hundreds ultimately needed rescue, though most were due to strong winds and not alcohol-related.

"It was pretty windy yesterday continuously, and it made it really easy to get out there. Once you're in an inflatable, you kind of just float it out, but then they kept on going out," said Kurt Lager with Ocean Safety. He explained rescue personnel on watercraft "had to physically grab the person and bring them into shore from basically 2:30 (p.m.), 3 o'clock on all the way into the evening, it was non-stop."

This isn't the first time lawmakers have dealt with a loophole about drinking out on the water.

San Diego's city council voted unanimously back in 2010 to extend the alcohol ban past the shoreline after having problems with college-aged drinkers participating in "Floatopia."

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which enforces laws in the water, says it's looking into similar rules for Hawaii.

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